Summer in Lanzarote means fiestas, so last month, Shaun Addison took a trip to see the Virgen de Las Nieves on her feast day.
Morning mists and clouds creep over the top of the cliffs of Famara like white smoke, billowing over rocky outcrops towards a solitary white temple surrounded by a low wall and guarded by several Canarian palm trees.
This church, La Ermita de Las Nieves, is one of the most sacred places on Lanzarote – the highest traditional building on the island and a place of worship and pilgrimage for more than six centuries.
And it’s a tradition that lives on, as pilgrims from all over Lanzarote ascend on 5th August every year to pay tribute to see the La Virgen de las Nieves – Our Lady of the Snows.
Pilgrims have set out at sunrise from all points of the island and as we drive up through Los Valles and past the wind farm we pass groups of them steadily making their way to the church – many carrying sticks and wearing hi-vis jackets (a wise idea on the misty roadsides). At the church more pilgrims arrive from all directions – walking along the clifftop from Haría, riding on donkeys up the broad pathway from Teguise and even a group scaling the cliff itself.
“We set out from Caleta de Famara about an hour and a half ago,” says Pepe, pointing to the distant scattering of tiny white houses two kilometres away and 650 metres down. He’s catching his breath after climbing the cliff with his nieces Marta and María, and all are wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Ascent to Las Nieves 2019” which they’ve had printed specially. Further down the cliff we can see at least a dozen more of the same t-shirts still struggling up the rocky ascent.
Usually, it’s strange to see more than a handful of people at this wild, lonely place, but today there’s a festive mood at Las Nieves, with stalls selling cakes, hot chocolate and churros to hungry pilgrims. A bar and an ice cream stand help add a holiday atmosphere and there’s also a stall selling rosaries, crucifixes and other religious souvenirs.
At midday, the mass begins, held by the High Priest of Lanzarote and attended by local bigwigs and representatives of the army, navy, police and Guardia Civil. Sermons are read and sacred songs invite the virgin to “Come with us and walk, Santa María.” Outside the church, families and children in their finest mill around, chatting and laughing expectantly, and fourteen members of Teguise’s Banda de Música tune up and prepare the processional marches they’ll be playing for the parade.
The mass finishes to three shouts of “Viva la Virgen de las Nieves” and the congregation leave the church. Then the image of the Virgin herself is taken from her usual resting place by the altar and, borne by four men, taken from the church.
The midday sun flashes brightly on her pearly cloak and her silver crown, and light up the pink and white roses and yellow dahlias at her feet as she is carried out of the side of the churchyard and taken for a short circuit, allowing her to have a 360 degree view of her island. In a field nearby, fireworks are set off and the band play a selection of marches, occasionally pausing for a lone drummer to mark a solemn, rattling rhythm.
The parade doesn’t last long. At its end the Virgin is displayed at the church door for a few more minutes before being returned to the altar for another year, and the celebrations begin in earnest…
There’s no snow on Lanzarote, but the Ermita de las Nieves is deliberately located at the highest, coldest and wettest part of the island – a strange and beautiful landscape with stunning views, hovering kestrels, purple thistles and prickly pear cacti.
The Virgin of the Snows, whose image overlooks the altar of the church, is traditionally approached by farmers pleading for rains, and on dry Lanzarote, that makes her very important indeed. In fact, she was officially declared the patron of the island in 1723.
Since then, her importance may have been slightly eclipsed by Mancha Blanca’s Our Lady of the Volcanoes at Mancha Blanca and the Virgins of Carmen celebrated in fishing communities all over the island, but the Snow Queen remains an essential element of Lanzarote’s culture, and her clifftop refuge is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable churches on the island.
Click the video below, to see the Romeria de Las Nieves.